Roger Humfeld with his Bees

By Leah Call  

When Roger Humfeld was squirrel hunting as a teenager nearly 50 years ago, he came upon a downed tree that was split open and full of honey. That sweet discovery fascinated him and stuck with him. 

“Over the years I’ve pondered about the bees and how they work,” says Humfeld, who lives on a farm outside of Westby. 

About 17 years ago, Humfeld turned that fascination into a hobby—beekeeping. “Another party showed me what was involved, got me into it and walked me through it for the first couple of years,” recalls Humfeld.

Today, Humfeld mentors other beekeeping newbies. He has 47 hives and roughly 2 million bees. And that’s about all he can handle.

“I’m 66 years old,” says Humfeld. “I know people who are running 200 hives. For them it’s a full-time job. That is their income. If they get much bigger than that, they have to hire help.”

Humfeld’s bees produce enough honey for him to market it at local retailers in the Westby and Viroqua area and by special order. “The bees always make more honey than they can consume themselves,” notes Humfeld. “Last year we collected 2,400 pounds of honey. I sold about half of it.”

The Buzz Around Beekeeping

It is said that bees pollinate about a third of everything we eat. The decline in these vital pollinators has spurred the popularity of beekeeping in both rural and urban areas. Online videos and beginner beekeeping books offer great information for those new to the hobby.

Beekeeping startup costs are about $400 to $500. Equipment must-haves include a smoker, hive tool, a veil or jacket and a pair of gloves. “Then you will need boxes where the queen lays the eggs and the young larva are raised, and a queen exporter which keeps the queen out of the upstairs part—that’s where the honey is stored,” explains Humfeld. 

And, of course, you’ll need bees. There are several types of honey bees: Italian, German, Carniolan, Caucasian, Buckfast and Russian. Humfeld has Italians and Carniolans. Different bee varieties have different temperaments. Despite being very winter-hardy, the Russian honey bees are very aggressive. “I won’t try them,” says Humfeld. “They have a very ornery disposition.”

Since a beekeeper has to work closely with these busy bees, disposition matters, especially when collecting the honey. Typically, beekeepers collect honey in late August or early September. “Most people try to have it all off before Labor Day—that way whatever honey bees bring in after Labor Day they keep for winter feed,” says Humfeld.

Turning Nectar Into Honey

Honey is one of the first sweeteners. Consumption of honey is known to reduce allergy symptoms, sooth sore throats, and boost energy and memory. Apiarist John Shonyo has been keeping bees and harvesting honey for about 10 years. Two and a half years ago he became co-owner of The Bee Shed in Rochester, Minnesota, where he sells honey products and beekeeping equipment. 

Shonyo’s 70 hives produce more than 7,000 pounds of honey annually, sold in his store and, later this year, at La Crosse’s People’s Food Co-op.

Bees travel 2 to 5 miles from the hive to find their nectar source. They bring the nectar back to the hive where it turns into honey. They’ll need about 100 pounds of honey to survive the winter, but there’s plenty to share with us humans.

“When the honey in the hive gets about 18 percent moisture content, they cap it with the wax capping,” explains Shonyo. 

“We take the boxes with the honey frames—always leaving enough for the bees for winter—and we bring the boxes to an extraction room. We slice off that capping which allows the honey to flow out, and we put them in a centrifuge that spins the frames and spins out the honey.”

The honey is then stored in tanks or barrels waiting to be packaged for sale. Once bottled, honey has an impressive shelf life. “We kid people and tell them we can guarantee it to 4,000 years,” says Shonyo, referencing pots of honey found in Egyptian tombs that were thousands of years old. 

While Shonyo and Humfeld enjoy caring for their bees and marketing their products, both men caution that it is a year-round commitment. Beekeepers need to check their hives regularly for activity and general bee health. There are numerous threats to honey bees. One scourge is the Varroa mite, a parasite that sucks their blood, weakening them and ultimately killing them. Keepers can control the mite population with natural pesticides available online and at stores that sell beekeeping supplies. 

Even in winter, you need to think about the health of your bees. When it’s cold outside, the bees will go into a semi-dormant state. Inside the hive the temperature remains about 80 to 85 degrees, notes Humfeld. He braves the freezing temps to check on his bees with a flashlight through a hole in the top of the hive. “If you see a wing move, they are fine. They create a big ball and then the ones on the outside, if they get cold, will work their way to the center and get warmed up.”

Humfeld puts sugar-block feeders on top of the hive in winter and occasionally in warmer months if the hive is light. 

While many cities have backyard beekeeping ordinances, including La Crosse as of April 2017, it’s wise to always check the regulations before investing in beekeeping. You also might want to reconsider if you or anyone residing with or around you has known allergies.

“If you have any reactions to bee stings, I recommend you not get involved,” said Humfeld. “No matter how careful you are, sooner or later you will get stung.”